Tag Archives: Native American Spirituality

Sleeping Giants

What did I conclude about the meaning of life and the possible existence of an afterlife from my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian?  Only that there’s a reason so many people are drawn to Native spirituality, and that’s its focus on the natural world and that we are interdependent with it and with one another.  Some tribes believe that everything is connected—seen and unseen, natural and manmade.  So the next time you swear at your computer, stop and try to have a little compassion for it!

Coincidentally, while I was in DC I started to read a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro called The Sleeping Giant which provided me with a comforting metaphor about death.  I started reading Ishiguro in August when I was in Scotland, and I kept reading.  When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature this month, I kind of felt like a genius because I could drop the names of four of his books and discuss the plot lines in detail in the lunchroom at work and at happy hours with friends.

Anyway, The Sleeping Giant uses the metaphor of a boatman ferrying people to an island from which there is no return.  It’s very peaceful except that they have to go alone—they have to leave their spouse or children or whoever they love most on the shore.  There’s no telling what’s on the island, but the novel is set in ancient Britain so it’s heavily wooded.  There we are, back to nature again. I found this illustration online that is kind of cool except it leaves out the woods.  My takeaway is that this worldview of death is that it’s a journey to an unknown but pleasant-enough-looking land.

I still think it could just be Lights Out.  But there could also be some new adventure on the other side.  As a traveler, the idea of taking a boat ride into the unknown is intriguing.

My flight home didn’t leave until 7pm, so I took in another exhibit at the AI museum about the Inca highway, which extended from what is now Chile to Colombia, or almost 25,000 miles (about 40,000 kilometers).  It was another extensive exhibit and I decided to just look at the artifacts and not read all the plaques about its construction or about the blood baths carried out during the Spanish conquest.  There were some beautiful and whimsical artifacts representing the many cultures and eras that had lain along the route.

I liked that the signage was in English and Spanish.  I would read the Spanish titles, then check to see if I’d got it right.  I mostly had, and I also learned a few new words.

This is a scale used by the Inca.  Keep in mind this was pre-Columbian (made, roughly, prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492).  Amazing that it survived.

I at first took the item below for an intricate neck piece but it is an example of a quipu, a counting and communications system which employed different colored strings with knots whose positions indicated values.

I had my doubts about eating a late lunch in the cafeteria.  Indian food in Minnesota means fry bread, which is basically deep-fried dough.  Not my idea of a healthy or delicious meal. But the cafeteria was organized by regions of American Indians, so there was everything from ceviche to salmon and yes—fry bread.

I filled my plate with salmon, a wild rice salad with water cress, and mashed sweet potatoes.

Good thing that admission to the museum was free, because after about five hours in the exhibits I dropped a wad of money in the cafeteria and gift shop.

I wandered around DC a bit more.  The International Monetary Fund and World Bank were having their annual meeting and banners with the theme END POVERTY were on prominent display.

Directly across the street from this building was a park full of homeless people.

And this is my view as I descended the escalators into the Metro.

Scary.  Our domestic infrastructure is being held together with rusty bolts, but we’re going to spend billions to build a wall to keep Mexicans out.

A Worldview from The Hill

A free day in Washington, DC.  There’s so much to see there.  It was a tossup between the two new museums, one dedicated to African Americans and one to Native Americans.  I chose the latter, since I had been to a Native wedding the previous weekend and had been thinking about cultures and spiritual traditions and my lack thereof.  Maybe I could learn something here.

And I hit the food-for-thought jackpot.  There was an entire exhibit about Native American cosmologies—worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe.  It would take an encyclopedia to do justice to Native American cosmologies, so I apologize in advance for what I am about to get wrong or leave out.

I watched a 15-minute introductory video which made the point that the term “American Indian” encompasses hundreds of tribes from Bolivia to Alaska and from Seattle to Florida and that they all have their own traditions and customs.  The video showed a guy doing something most people would associate with Native Americans—drumming in a pow wow or carving a totem or some such (I can’t remember) and he said, “This isn’t something we do for fun—this is the way it is.”

I’ve been to pow wows so I think I know what he meant.  A non-Native could come away from a pow wow thinking, “Well that seemed like a nice excuse to dance and socialize and I’m glad they let me observe but it seemed kind of cheesy and repetitive and I don’t need to go again.”  Whereas for Natives who take it seriously, the regalia and music and dancing have significance way beyond their outward appearance.

The cosmology exhibit featured eight tribes.  An impression I’ve always had about Indian spirituality is that it’s nature based.  Having been raised in a Catholic milieu, I can’t think of anything related to the natural world in Catholicism.

Judaism, the world religion with which I’ve always identified, has a few nature-focused holidays.  Sukkot requires us to build a temporary dwelling outdoors and eat in it every day for 10 days to remind ourselves of the 40 years we spent wandering in the desert.  Tu B’Shvat is the New Year of Trees and we … plant trees.  We throw bread on the water (a river or lake) during the High Holidays to symbolize casting away our sins.  But these are once-a-year holidays.  We used to sacrifice bulls under the full moon but thankfully discarded that tradition.

The natural world was the starting point all of the tribal cosmologies.  Basically, each worldview started with some kind of geographic division: the four compass directions or, in the case of the Mapuche, six dimensions including the water below and Father God above.  Each natural sphere is associated with values or animals or human traits.

The values overlapped but weren’t exactly the same from tribe to tribe.  The Lakota Souix and Anishinabe are tribes that inhabit Minnesota and vast areas beyond.  Lakota values corresponding to the four compass points are generosity, wisdom, respect, and fortitude.  Anishinabe values also include wisdom, respect, and fortitude—plus love, courage, honesty, humility, and truth—but not generosity.  The Maya value wisdom, honesty, integrity, faithfulness, authority, and spiritual leadership.  The Yu’pik value respect, loyalty, and authority.

These are Yu’pik elders consulted on the exhibit.

In Judaism, I would say justice is the primary value.  I thought maybe the Lakota value of truth was close to this but for them “truth” is about things that are eternal, like the sun and the moon—things that never change.  Courage was the closest to justice; in the case of Natives it means moral strength to do the right thing.

I won’t get into the forms of worship—if that’s the correct word—but it does seem true that Native practices—at least the eight tribes represented here—really did spring from and revolve around nature.

Some tribes had worldviews that included an afterlife; some didn’t even have a future tense.  One of the afterlives was described as “a place where you go when you die to dance forever.”  I’m sure that sounds great to some people but not to me.  I’m a horrible dancer.